Bob Huggins is a few Eagle Rare bourbons in at a small hotel bar when, from underneath his nylon pullover, a light blinks on his wrist.
It’s his Fitbit.
It occurs to you in that moment, in the Doubletree hotel bar in Charlottesville, Virginia, that a blinking Fitbit on the bourbon-sipping Huggins is the perfect metaphor for the West Virginia Mountaineers coach.
Because Huggins is a living, breathing contradiction. Only partially because he is still living and breathing.
By his own admission he has died twice, his genetically impaired heart calling uncle on his exercise-averse, hard-living lifestyle. Ten days ago, Huggins collapsed to his knees in the first half of the Mountaineers’ game against Texas, his internal defibrillator sending him a shock — and perhaps a reminder — after an irregular heartbeat. By the way, he coached the second half.
Huggins refuses to slow down, professionally or socially.
He is a gruff, hard-cursing taskmaster whose verbal dressing-downs could wilt a redwood. The F-word is not part of his vocabulary. It is his vocabulary.
Yet ask him about his mother, dead 14 years now, and he practically melts.
He’s a renegade who refuses to dress the part. He long ago ditched the requisite suit and tie most every other coach favors, preferring his comfy pullover. Rather than stalk the sideline in anger, he sits slump-shouldered on a stool to better aid his aching hips.
Yet people are fiercely loyal to, if not downright protective of, him. They insist that the man painted the villain is actually just the opposite.
Most of all, Huggins is a basketball survivor, a man who has amended his style of play to suit his players; he just won’t amend himself. He lost a long battle of wills with the administration after 16 years, a Final Four and two Elite Eights at Cincinnati. He didn’t fade away. Instead he lived to coach another day, his stature never diminishing, perhaps instead growing.
So what’s the secret to his survival?
Despite all those contradictions, Huggins just might be the simplest man to understand in all of college basketball.
“He doesn’t care and he doesn’t play the game; that’s really all it is,” says Billy Hahn, Huggins’ friend of 41 years and assistant to the head coach at West Virginia. “That’s why people don’t get him because nobody else acts like he does. His favorite thing to say to me is, ‘Billy, you really think I give a [insert one of those well-worn F-words here]?”
OVER THE COURSE OF THREE HOURS — and this is a day before a game — players will have their intelligence, manhood, heart, courage and desire questioned. It is not done with a blood-curdling scream but more with a condescending sneer, which somehow seems worse than the yelling.
“Why does a guy sign up for this?” Nathan Adrian says as he laces up his sneakers for his daily dose of Huggins. “You kind of see through it and take it for what it is. It makes you better.”
And this is a good day. No one has been sent to the treadmill, Huggins’ preferred hamster wheel of torture. The treadmill is set for 45 seconds at 15 mph and designed to help players not repeat their mistakes. “We had a high school kid visiting ask one of our players, ‘Tell me what I need to do to train for the treadmill,” says Larry Harrison, Huggins’ associate head coach at WVU and his assistant at Cincinnati from 1989 to 1997. “Our guy says, ‘Man, you’re missing the point. You can’t train for the treadmill. You want to stay off of it.”
Huggins comes by his coaching style naturally, or perhaps more accurately, genetically. Charlie Huggins was a legendary high school coach in Ohio, owner of three state championships who once had a 51-game winning streak. He also held an accept-nothing-less-than-the-best motto. Charlie didn’t curse, but people insist his eldest son is the kinder, more gentler version of his dad.
He might not have used the word, but in his own way Charlie didn’t give a f—. A scholarship player in his own right at West Virginia, Charlie dropped out before his senior year when his first son came along. Together he and Norma raised seven kids on a teacher’s salary and started and ran a successful basketball camp. Charlie’s own dad split his time running the family farm and working at the water company, so he came by his appreciation for hard work naturally. Frankly, Charlie Huggins couldn’t understand anyone who didn’t feel the same. Plenty of men in Eastern Ohio and West Virginia made their livings going down in the coal mines. A tough basketball practice didn’t seem to be asking too much.
“He was definitely the hard one,” Bob Huggins says of his father.
Charlie’s players respected him even if they didn’t always like him. There were three rules at his practices: work on your fundamentals, play defense and endure the head coach’s wrath.
From his father, Huggins not only inherited the three-hour practice, but he also found a deep respect for defense and an intolerance for laziness. The only players Huggins can’t coach, he says, are guys who don’t care. When his assistants go out recruiting, they concentrate on how a player interacts with his coaches and teammates and how he works in practice as much — maybe more — than how he performs in a game.
Huggins is the first to admit he is not for everybody. The hearty list of players who have transferred away from him — 12 in one four-year period at West Virginia — offers the hard evidence.
Even those who are a perfect fit endure an uneasy transition.
Erik Martin, now on Huggins’ staff, was a laid-back kid from Southern California, playing at Santa Ana Community College, when he went to work as a counselor at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. There he met Anthony Buford, who was transferring from Akron to Cincinnati. Buford turned Martin on to the idea of playing for Huggins. Martin took a visit, met a pleasant coach and opted to sign.
There he was introduced to the real Huggins.
“People told me, ‘Listen to what he says, not how he says it,” he says. “I struggled with that. I was like, ‘You can tell me go over there, but you don’t need to use all those extracurricular words.’ When practice is over, the stuff he says is left on the court and he’ll move on. But I was like, ‘There’s no way you can say all that stuff to me that you just said and think I’m going to move on. Forget that.”’
So why is Martin here, in Morgantown, working with Huggins?
Why are so many of Huggins’ former players fiercely loyal, coming back in droves to visit their old coach?
The company line is that Huggins “cares” about his players. He gives a f— about them.
It’s a little more complicated than that. He does not care about them in a milk-and-cookies kind of way.
In 1993, as Cincinnati was preparing for rival Xavier, Nick Van Exel, the Bearcats’ star who would go on to earn third-team All-American honors that season, suggested during practice that the overzealous Huggins might be a little paranoid.
“He didn’t like that so much,” Van Exel says. “He threw me out of practice.”
Not for the first time, mind you, and not for the last. Rather than linger in the locker room, as booted players typically did, Van Exel went over to the cafeteria to get his dinner. The assistant coaches found him there and told him Huggins wanted him back in practice.
“I said, ‘Nah, I’m not going back right now,” Van Exel remembers.
Van Exel didn’t start that Xavier game. And he sat for quite a while that game.
“You don’t go against the routine,” Van Exel says he learned. “I was fed up, but I also understood that coach has a way of doing things, whether I liked it or not. It wasn’t all about me.”
At practice, Huggins mixes his scathing criticisms with plenty of jokes. Players, too, aren’t afraid to push back, to try to defend their mistakes or even poke a little fun at their coach. There is just one cardinal rule. When Huggins is in full cutthroat mode: “You don’t laugh. You never ever laugh,” Adrian says.
Those close say Huggins is softer now. The public perception is a little softer, too, the thaw beginning at the 2010 Final Four when Huggins tended to an injured Da’Sean Butler. Butler planted awkwardly on a layup drive during the Mountaineers’ national semifinal game against Duke, falling to the floor in heaving sobs as he clutched his left knee.
Huggins immediately ran to his side, dropped to his knees and, cradling Butler’s head as the crowd of 71,000 at Lucas Oil Stadium went silent, whispered in Butler’s ear. Huggins’ shot at a national title crumbled to the ground with Butler.
The player, keenly aware how his injury would affect his team, kept apologizing to his coach for letting his team down. “You’ve done more than enough” Huggins told him. Suddenly the angry taskmaster looked human, the players who insisted that Huggins cared about them sounded at least plausible. “Huggy Bear” was born, the nickname losing its ironic twist.
Huggins chuckles at the 180. Ten years earlier he did the same thing, comforting Kenyon Martin when the Cincinnati star broke his leg in the conference tournament.
“That game just wasn’t on national television,” Huggins says.
THE TRUTH IS, Bob Huggins does give a f—, just in his own way. When you listen to him and dig a little past the “I don’t give a f—s,” you realize he does care.
“He’s sort of the equivalent of players saying they don’t read the sports pages, but they know everything going on,” says Paul Daugherty, the longtime Cincinnati Enquirer columnist who covered Huggins during his tenure there. “I won’t say he’s thin-skinned, but he’s like teams that press but don’t like to be pressed. Or guys who can come across as bullying who don’t like to be bullied.”
Huggins sees himself as a truth-teller in a profession filled with phonies, a guy who isn’t perfect but also has never tried to say he is. He chooses, of all people, late UNLV coach and forever NCAA tormenter Jerry Tarkanian to make his point.
“Tark was Tark,” he says. “He wasn’t one guy one minute and another the next. A lot of these guys, these Hall of Fame guys, everyone thinks they’re wonderful people but they’re really not.”
Of course some would draw the line between Tarkanian and Huggins in areas outside their personalities. By the time Huggins left Cincinnati after 16 seasons, plenty questioned whether Huggins had followed the same win-at-all-costs mantra as Tarkanian, who was often in the NCAA crosshairs for allegedly bending the rules. Huggins pushed the Bearcats to the Final Four in three seasons on a roster of junior college players, high school grads and transfers. At the 1992 Final Four, Cincinnati stood beside bluebloods of Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky.
“You get good too quick, automatically something is wrong,” Harrison says. “Plus Huggs had this gruff demeanor. We had juco guys. We wore black. We were in the city. We weren’t getting off the bus in suits and ties. We fit the label.”
The questions had some backing. Huggins’ tenure at Cincinnati was marked by a 1998 NCAA investigation that led to NCAA probation and a loss of basketball scholarships, a lousy graduation rate (27 of 95 players), multiple player arrests and his own DUI arrest.
Huggins insists there are asterisks to each accusation:
- the NCAA report did not specifically charge him;
- junior college players, transfers out of the program and guys who turn pro don’t count in the graduation rate evaluation;
- many of the charges against the players were reduced or dropped.
When asked about it all, he says plainly, “I don’t cheat. I never cheated.”
The DUI cannot be refuted. The police report said Huggins was slurring his words and that there was vomit on the inside of the driver’s door. Police video shows a wobbly Huggins failing the sobriety test. When asked to recite the alphabet, Huggins says “E, F, G, H, I, K, L, N, Z.”
The DUI arrest, along with NCAA issues, sealed his fate when Nancy Zimpher took over as Cincinnati president. Within a year of Huggins’ DUI, Zimpher offered him an ultimatum — resign or be fired. Huggins chose to leave.
Zimpher, now the chancellor of the SUNY school system, did not return email requests for an interview.
The end hurt both Huggins and Cincinnati. Huggins’ reputation was eviscerated, while angry fans and alumni attacked Zimpher. Kenyon Martin, the Bearcats’ star, told the school to remove his retired jersey from its rafters and his trophies from their cases.
In 2009, Huggins and the Mountaineers made their first visit to Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena. Huggins was greeted with a lengthy ovation, and the school handed out “Thanks Huggs” signs for the fans to hold and opened the game with a video tribute to the former coach.
Huggins says with a chuckle that he’s not “a very reflective person.” He tries not to dwell on the past — good or bad. Still, he is quick to share memories of coming home to his tearful daughters, each distraught about the media reports and television discussions of their father. “You wish you could grab those 5-6, 140-pound blowhards and choke them,” Huggins says. “But obviously you can’t.”
“You don’t ever want to be on Bob Huggins’ bad list because as loyal as he is on the good side, if you cross him, make him look bad or do something wrong to him or his family, he will try to figure out any way he can to make it miserable for you,’ Hahn says.
Asked whether such a list exists, Huggins shrugs.
“You can forgive,” he says, “but you don’t have to forget.”
BOB HUGGINS STILL HAS NO IDEA how the woman got his cell number — or who she was for that matter. But this is what he heard when he answered
“What kind of fish do you serve at your fish fry?”
The woman called to explain that she would not attend his annual fundraiser if he was serving tilapia (“Those are bottom-feeders,” she explained). Huggins treated her question with all the gravitas it deserved.
“No, ma’am,” he explained.”We would never serve tilapia. I believe it’s cod.”
This is what it is to be Bob Huggins in West Virginia. You are a big deal, big enough to auction off a one-of-a-kind 48-by-20 oil painting of yourself to the tune of $7,500 at your fundraising fish fry.
You’re also local enough to field questions about the menu.
It would be, in fact, hard to find a better marriage of man and institution/state/fan base in sports. Huggins has enough sway to help raise more than $1 million for the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund and another $197,000 for Remember the Miners charity, but a buffet-style fish fry, with food heaped on plastic foam plates, suits the crowd and the casual coach. Huggins is West Virginia. He grew up in Morgantown, graduated from West Virginia and, despite his $3 million salary, oozes the state’s blue-collar, down-home style. Like every other coach, he has a loaner car from a local dealership. Most days the space outside of the practice facility is occupied by his Toyota Tundra pickup truck.
During an afternoon practice, former teammate Warren Baker pops in to say hello. Later that night, Jim Bill Harvey and his wife, Sharon, find a table to listen to Huggins’ radio show. Jim Bill graduated from college with Huggins.
“I’ve said before he is the most powerful person in this state because he knows West Virginia and everyone here responds to him,” Baker says.
People here also know what others think of them. “The perception is that we run around barefooted, drink moonshine and smoke corncob pipes,” Huggins says. People here, like Huggins, really don’t give a f—.
If others look at Huggins as some screaming banshee, they see a man raised as they were: on the simple principles of hard work and accountability.
“He’s one of us,” Sharon Harvey says simply.
Hosting a fundraiser in February, in the height of basketball season, isn’t ideal. The fish fry falls on the Friday night before the Mountaineers play Oklahoma State, and Huggins spent the days and weeks leading up to the event gathering auction items and figuring out starting bids. Right before he leaves for practice, he signs two cardboard cutouts of himself.
The fish fry is near and dear to his heart, the big-money event to support the endowment fund named for his mother. She was the soft touch compared to her husband. Norma battled colon cancer, arguing with her son when he insisted on driving from Cincinnati to her Akron hospital almost every day that “there’s nothing you can do here. Go coach your team.” He couldn’t stay away. His mother, he says, was his best friend.
When his mother died in 2003, shortly after her 50th wedding anniversary, Huggins felt lost and helpless. She didn’t want a public funeral, and as the flowers and cards flooded in, he couldn’t help but think how pointless the tokens were. He started the endowment fund, promising all the money toward cancer research. Along with the clause in his contract that stipulates $25,000 goes to the fund every time West Virginia beats Kansas, Huggins donates every appearance fee he earns as well.
“Everyone in this business starts out wanting to be good and wanting to be somebody,” he says. “So when you achieve that, why wouldn’t you embrace it? What’s so hard about giving an autograph?”
The only trouble is, there are a lot of appearances, and Huggins has a hard time saying no. His friends wish he would try.
In 2002, Huggins was rushed to the hospital in Pittsburgh after suffering a massive heart attack during a recruiting trip. He was fitted with the defibrillator but returned to coaching after just two weeks. He hasn’t stopped since.
He admits he still doesn’t take good care of himself, especially during the season. He’ll eat poorly, sleep worse and work more. He has a fishing cabin about two hours away but rarely gets to it.
At least, though, he has that Fitbit to at least give a passing nod to his health.
“No, actually I don’t have it anymore,” Huggins says weeks after the meeting at the Doubletree. “I broke it. Actually I broke two of ’em.”
Well, of course he did.
Because you know what the bourbon-drinking, hard-cussing, never-stopping Bob Huggins would say to the warning signs from some heart rate-monitoring, step-counting, nagging fitness apparatus?
“I don’t give a …”